Your 2-year-old wrote on the wall with lipstick; your 5-year-old helped herself to a cookie after you said no; you caught your 7-year-old in a lie. Your first inclination is to explode, but you've made a resolution to be more patient. Besides, you know that when you lose it, you end up apologetic and defensive. What you need is a game plan. The 60-Second Discipline Plan is not a specific method of discipline, like giving time-outs.
Rather, it's an overall strategy--one that focuses not on the child's misbehavior but on your response to it. If you use the 60-Second format, the consequences you impose will be more effective. You'll be in control, your child will know what to expect, and you'll be sure that you're modeling what you actually want her to learn. Here are the six simple steps.
The first thing you have to do is take away the lipstick, separate the sparring siblings, or remove the child from the counter. "Intervene immediately," says Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., author of The Secret of Parenting. "Don't say 'stop' and wait for a child to obey." Safety is always the first priority, so if there's any potential danger to your child, you need to act right away. "You must also remove anything that is part of the problem," says Bobbi Rosenquest, Ph.D., an associate professor of early-childhood education at Boston's Wheelock College. "Your child needs to be able to focus on you and the situation. The cookie or the offending sibling will be a distraction to him." If necessary, remove your child from the scene of the crime. In addition, you need to separate yourself from the mess and the commotion so that you'll be less tempted to do or say something in anger that you'll regret later.
You know how the flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before you help your child put on his? Dealing with emotion is like that--take care of yourself first. Being angry isn't the problem, says Dr. Wolf. It's how you handle your anger: "Vowing not to get mad sets up an impossible standard, and you'll just end up feeling bad. And kids know when you're annoyed even if you try to hide it. What you really need to do is limit your anger." If you grew up in a boisterous family where everybody yelled, curbing how you express your emotions can be difficult, says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles. "You have to learn to vent in a different way: Instead of saying, 'You bad boy,' you can say, 'Ahhhhhhhhhhh!' loudly. That way, you let off some steam and your child doesn't feel belittled."
Calming down will not only help you handle the situation but enable your child to hear you. "If you shout, you'll undermine what you're trying to teach because your child will pay attention to your intense emotion, not to the wrongdoing," says Denis Donovan, M.D., director of the Children's Center for Developmental Psychiatry, in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Assess the Situation
Take a few seconds to focus on what has actually happened. Dr. Rosenquest recalls the time her son, then 2, drew with a purple marker in the living room. "The couch and the wall were ruined, and I was furious. My son, on the other hand, seemed stunned and heartbroken by my reaction. If I had waited a moment, I would have discovered that he was imitating Harold from the children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon. From his point of view, it was a great creative endeavor." Knowing your child's intentions doesn't rescue the couch, of course, but it does put his behavior in a completely different light.
This is a Zen moment. To achieve it, you must separate the incident from all others like it in the past as well as those that might happen in the future. And when you look at the situation in the here and now, as a single event rather than a repeated offense, it's often not as serious an infraction as you originally thought.
This is also the moment to figure out where the behavior is coming from. "A 3-year-old who's having a tantrum may be hungry," Kurcinka says. "An 8-year-old who's a bear at breakfast may not be getting enough sleep." In either case, you have to reassess your role.
"Ask yourself whether there's something you need to do that will help prevent this behavior in the future, such as keeping off-limits items in a less accessible place or changing family routines," Dr. Wolf says. In other words, don't say, "How many times have I told you . . . ?" Even if you think you've told your child something 100 times (which you haven't), it doesn't really matter. You need to tell her again and again, and yet again.
Talk to Your Child
If you simply put a child in time-out, you're controlling her rather than making her responsible for managing her own behavior. Instead, says Dr. Wolf, "tell her why you don't want her to do something and what the real consequences are--not her punishment, but that the marker doesn't come off the walls, for example. Two or three sentences will do just fine." The younger the child, the fewer the words. Get down to her level, and look her in the eye. She needs to hear what she's done wrong and what would have been correct: "We don't draw on the walls--we draw on a piece of paper" or "You can't have a cookie--it's too close to dinner. You may have a carrot instead." Then let the issue drop. "As soon as you let your child lure you into a discussion, you weaken the message," Dr. Wolf says. What if she has a valid objection? "Talk about it later," he suggests. "In the heat of the moment, she's likely just pleading her case, not starting a real conversation."
Figure Out Whether a Consequence Is Needed
Many parents think that punishment is the heart of discipline, but most experts disagree. "Consequences are necessary only when being consistent doesn't work. But it usually does," says Dr. Donovan. "Four or five instances of simply taking the cookie out of the child's hand and saying, 'No sweets before dinner' will likely take care of the cookie-snatching behavior." Dr. Wolf agrees that punishment is usually not the way to go. "If the kids are throwing the ball in the house, by all means take the ball away--but they don't need to be punished," he says. "If the issue is something you care deeply about, reinforce your message later at a neutral time."
Consider consequences only for a few, carefully chosen misbehaviors--and only when your child repeatedly ignores your clear instructions. What's most effective is to let him experience the results of his actions: If he hits other children, he won't be able to join them for playtime.
Enforce the Consequence
"If the motto of real estate is 'Location, location, location,' the motto of parenting is 'Consistency, consistency, consistency,' "Dr. Donovan says. "The child's mind is completely logical, and it tells her, 'If Mom and Dad don't follow through, they don't mean it.'" The idea is to have very few rules but to enforce them every single time. So don't make idle threats that you can't or won't carry out. You know what we mean: You're grounded for life; that's the last cookie you'll ever see; no playdates for a month. You'll not only upset your child but ultimately undermine your authority.
When all is said and done, the 60-Second Plan is very simple, but it does require a great deal of thought about your goals and an equal amount of self-control. Why is that important? Because good discipline is about much more than not throwing food on the floor and not writing on the furniture. You are conveying your values and showing you have the self-discipline that you're trying to teach your child.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the January 2003 issue of Parents magazine.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.